tio jorge invited patricio and me to his birthday celebration this past weekend. it was going to be big. it promised to be a very good time. he was going to go the whole hog. actually, i should say "whole sheep, " because that's exactly what he cooked for the occasion.
everybody's doing it, and they have been for a long, long time. mexican food is one of the most popular world "fusion" cuisines, and it seems to have been consistently fashionable for the last 500 years. barbacoa, or what tio jorge did to that sheep, is a crowning example of what emerged on the dining scene when the spanish and the indigenous people collided in the kitchen.
the aztecs' diet was based on corn, beans and squash, and though they did include meat, like turkey, escuincle dog, and wild game, it was proportionally little, and they certainly didn't have any sheep around to roast. enter the spanish stage right. the spanish liked to eat lots of meat. they also liked some of what was going on regarding food preparation in their newly-conquered territory. i don't know how or when barbacoa as we know it finally emerged, but there's no doubt that the recipe has ties to both cultures. it's a fairly labor-intensive and time-consuming endeavor, but it seems to be the thing to do for a big family bash, and it's also often advertised on restaurant menus as weekend specials. (i tell you what, at el mexiquense in tlalnepantla on saturdays and sundays, the barbacoa is absolutely delicious. try to visit mexico city over a weekend, if only for the tacos dorados. i'm really serious).
but i digress. the pictures here are from the actual birthday feast on saturday, but preparations began on friday evening. borrowing lots of words from a cook named jim peyton, i'll describe the basic process of making barbacoa. it's often made in the same way it was for centuries before the arrival of the spanish (with different meat, of course). in this original, indigenous pit-cooking process, the meat is wrapped in maguey leaves, then placed on a grill work of sticks over a cauldron of water that is set over glowing coals in a pit about three feet deep. garbanzo beans and chiles are added to the pot, which will later be served as a soup with the meat. also, maguey leaves serve as a wrapping around mixtures of prickly pear cactus, sausage, chile and onions, which are placed on top of the meat in the pit (these big maguey wraps are called mixiotes: "mee-show-tehs"). and as if that weren't enough, the stomach of the sheep is refilled with the cleaned tripe and spices, and placed on top of the mixiotes. if you want to, you can also stick the sheep's head in there for good measure. the pit is then covered and sealed with earth, and the meat then cooks by both smoke and steam. whoa.
on friday night, i witnessed most of the process. tio jorge has a pit built into his superman grill station, and the coals were ablaze by the time we arrived. sheep parts were also arranged nicely all over the kitchen counter. but before preparing the meat or the mixiotes, the maguey leaves were first roasted on one side to release any toxins and make them more flexible. many were then used to line the metal frame that held the cauldron and all the meat. the pit itself had a fire inside for at least five hours before lowering the meat down into it; temperature was clearly key. the other maguey leaves were then used to make the mixiotes, tied up in big bundles with twine. and after filling the metal frame with cauldron, meat, mixiotes, pancita (the stomach), and head, it took both patricio and jorge jr. to hoist that thing down into the pit. tio jorge covered the pit with a metal sheet, and then again with two bucketfuls of packed dirt. it was around midnight by the time they finished, and the only thing left to do was wait.
that's exactly what we did until about four o'clock on saturday afternoon, when the pit was uncovered and the taste test began. the meat is used to make tacos, wrapped in tortillas (with lime juice and salsa, if you like), and it was a total success, as seen in the following pictures of meat pieces everywhere. it was such a hit that jorge jr's father-in-law (the one in the black shirt) kissed the sheep head in gratitude. ha ha ha.
the english word barbeque comes from barbacoa, but they are now very different ways of preparing meat. both, however, are traditions in which men, in particular, seem to take a ot of pride, and both are often used to bring a lot of family and friends together for a good time. i feel really lucky to bear witness to both now. my tastebuds feel lucky, too.